New Release: Murder Stories!

IT’S HERE! Finally after more than a year of intense effort, my latest book is on the market. It’s a history-lovers delight, but also perfect for fans of true crime. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process of bringing the dead back to life in these pages, and I think you’ll enjoy it, too.

Murder in the County: 50 True Stories of the Old West

Contrary to popular notion, Arkansas was part of the Old West along with Texas and the rest of those more familiar dusty southwestern places. Its western border joined up with the Indian Nations where many a weary marshal rode out with his bedroll and pistol carrying writs from the U. S. District Court at Fort Smith in a search for a steady stream of men rustling livestock, stealing horses, selling whiskey, or running from the law.

From its earliest days, Washington County, Arkansas, experienced some of the worst the Old West had to offer. At unexpected moments, county settlers faced their fellow man in acts of fatal violence. These murderous events not only ended hopeful lives but also forever changed those who survived them. Not to say that the murders in the county all stemmed from conflict along its western border—plenty of blood spilled within its communities and homesteads.

The fifty chapters of this collection each focus on one violent incident. Through family histories, legal records, and newspaper accounts, the long-dead actors tell their shocking stories of rage, grief, retaliation, and despair.

Available now at Amazon.com

Do the Ends Justify the Means?

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Following 2015 charges against “19 Kids and Counting” star John Duggar for molesting his sisters and the rape of a young girl at the hands of a former employee of Rep. Justin Harris who had adopted the girl then ‘rehomed’ her to the man who would rape her, the latest moral scandal in Arkansas has to do with a scheme of kickbacks in exchange for funneling state tax dollars to a tiny religious college. Earlier this week, former Sen. Jon Woods, Ecclesia College president Oren Paris III, and a business consultant friend of the two, Randell G. Shelton, were named in federal indictments.

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Former Rep. Micah Neal

Previously indicted on several counts in the same scheme, former Rep. Micah Neal entered a plea of guilty to taking kickbacks. Other indictments may follow for additional persons, one of whom is referred to as “Businessman A” and for Ecclesia College, assumed to be “Entity A.”

The federal investigation has been ongoing for a couple of years and covers a period from 2013 to 2015. Until news of the investigation leaked out in the summer of 2016, Neal had been running for county judge. He dropped out of the race, citing residency concerns as his reason. News of his indictment came later.

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Former Senator Jon Woods

Woods announced in November 2015 he wouldn’t run for re-election, possibly due to knowledge of the investigation.

Here’s the set up. An Arkansas law allows leftover money from the General Improvement Fund to be allocated for pet projects in legislators’ home districts. If approved, grant requests disperse the money through economic development districts toward worthy nonprofits. It’s a system ripe for abuse.

Currently in session, the legislature is expected to take away this honey hole at the urging of our rather embarrassed governor, Asa Hutchinson, a former Congressman, head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and more recently, head of Homeland Security.

But the cash cow is already out of the barn, at least for this highly religious group. A total of thirteen indictments against former Senator Woods alleges he committed fraud and took a bribe of $40,000 plus “an undetermined amount of cash” in exchange for helping funnel more than $350,000 to Ecclesia College, purportedly for land on which to build student housing.

But there was no need for student housing. The grant request claimed that the college needed housing due to “rapid growth.” The college with an enrollment of less than 200 mostly off-campus students already owned 200 undeveloped acres. Records show that the GIF money paid for about fifty additional acres at an inflated price. To date, no building permits have been sought to build on any of this land, so evidently the ‘urgent’ need for housing wasn’t so urgent after all.

While indictments do not constitute a conviction, chances are good that plea deals will follow. The money was there and they wanted it and they had a handy nonprofit, namely Ecclesia College, by which to obtain it. According to the indictments, as early as January 2013 these three men “devised a scheme and artifice to defraud and deprive the citizens of the honest services of a public official through bribery.”

A March 3 write-up in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reveals a tangle of people eager to get their sweaty hands on state tax dollars. Never mind that Woods and Neal, as elected officials, both swore to uphold the state’s constitution. Never mind that Paris served as president of a college presenting itself as a Christian institution. The elaborate diversions through which the money flowed portrays clear evidence these men knew they were doing something wrong.[1]

But it’s worse than that. It’s not just greed at work here. A text message from college president Paris to Woods is cited in the news article:

Good selling point to conservative legislators is that (Entity A) produces graduates that are conservative voters. All state and secular colleges produce [a] vast majority [of] liberal voters.”

Woods replied: “Agreed.”

This blatant agenda to brainwash students toward conservative views fits right in with the apparent right-wing philosophy that the ends justify the means. These men were leaders of their communities and their church. As such, the highest standard of ethical and moral behavior would be expected. Yet they apparently had no qualms about perverting the intent of GIF grants in order to enrich themselves as well as serve their ultimate goal, that of furthering the Christian agenda in taking over the nation’s political institutions.

I recently wrote that the right-wing effort to make the United States a “Christian nation” constitutes treason.  This latest incident is only a tiny glimpse of a pervasive delusion rampant in that group that whatever is done in the name of God is acceptable, even praiseworthy.  The text of Oren Paris III clearly states the intent to increase the number of conservative voters in order to bring the country closer to their ideal Christian Nation.

This type of thinking is no different from that of ISIS leaders who justify acts of terror by claiming that it pleases God. They know what Allah wants and the ends justify the means.

Aside from minor inconveniences like federal indictments, Wood, Neal, Paris et al may suffer little consequence among their peers. Shortly after the indictments hit the news, Ecclesia College board chairman Phil Brassfield posted a letter on the college’s Facebook page stating, in part:

While the allegations made against Oren [Paris] are to be taken seriously, we are confident once all the facts and the truth are made known, all will come to understand as we on the Board of Governance believe, that Oren has acted at all times with absolute integrity and always in the best interest of Ecclesia College. We are at peace in the knowledge that Oren is a godly leader, a loving husband and father, a vigilant shepherd and a faithful servant. It is in this confidence that we as a board remain loyal and steadfast with our brother in Christ.[2], [3]

Clearly, right-wing Christian Republican hypocrisy stretches from the lowest levels of government all the way to the top where–at this very moment–perjury, lies, and dissembling of every order permeate the executive and legislative branches. In the name of God. Because the ends justify the means.

~~~

[1] See also a write-up in the Arkansas Times.

[2] In the Arkansas Times article cited above, a testimonial written by Oren Paris’ wife regarding his meeting with then-presidential candidate Ted Cruz, states, in part: “At one of the meetings Oren was able to attend Senator Cruz and his wife Heidi shared how the Lord led them to run for the Presidential Office. I remember Oren sharing with me how the love of Jesus shone through Heidi as she told of her prayer to God whether she should do this for Ted (leave her job and dive into a campaign) or not. The Lord spoke to her and said, “No you should not do it for Ted. You should do it for Me, for my glory.” That meeting lasted more than 7 hours and was filled with Senator Cruz and Heidi (daughter and granddaughter of missionaries) sharing their hearts, answering questions, and joining in prayer for revival in our nation.”

[3] In unanimous agreement, the board confirmed Paris’ continuing role as college president. The letter was signed by board members including the newly elected Washington County judge, Joseph Wood. When former Rep. Micah Neal suddenly dropped out of the county judge race in the summer of 2016, for reasons later revealed to be his federal indictments, Joseph Wood stepped into the candidacy despite concerns about whether such a move was legal. His questionable activities since taking office, including breaking several regulations about appointees, remain under scrutiny. For more, check this article at the Arkansas Times.

 

A Sword Cuts Both Ways

swordFor decades, the religious right has gained access to tax dollars by filling a niche in the education system. In addressing an ‘at risk’ population among children, these religious activists have made great strides toward the use of tax dollars for religious instruction.

It’s a clever end-run around the law. In Arkansas until 2012, a quietly growing swarm of such preschools illegally utilized millions of tax dollars for programs that began each day with prayer and Bible study. (Which they have never been required to pay back.) Classroom activities included coloring images of Biblical scenes, singing hymns, and the occasional time-out at the principal’s office where the recalcitrant child might be prayed over to cast out the demons causing his/her unruly behavior.

Tipped off by thoughtful journalists, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) threatened a lawsuit against the state. Specifically cited in the complaint was the Growing God’s Kingdom preschool at West Fork. The Arkansas Times, arguably the state’s only non-rightwing media, reported that “According to the school’s handbook, parents are assured that staff members will ‘strive too [sic] ensure that your child feels the love of Jesus Christ while preparing them for Kindergarten.’ The preschoolers, it continues, will be taught ‘the word of God’ so that they can ‘spread the word of God to others.’”

Outrageous not only because the preschool blatantly advertised its religious intent in its name and literature without the state blinking an eye before handing over tax dollars, its owner/operator Justin Harris also served as an elected representative in the state’s legislature. And he wasn’t the only elected official sworn to uphold the Constitution who grabbed illegal tax dollars hand over fist. Similar preschools operated under the leadership of Johnny Key, also a legislator and – incredibly – in 2015 designated by the Republican governor Asa Hutchinson as head of the Department of Education, even though Hutchinson had to massage the state’s rules about qualifications for the department head because Key didn’t meet them.

Specifically targeted by religious preschools in order to boost their standing for ever greater grant funding, potential ‘students’ are rounded up from problematic environments.

  • The ABC Program serves educationally deprived children, ages birth through 5 years, excluding a kindergarten program. The Arkansas Better Chance for School Success Program serves children ages 3 and 4 years from families with gross income not exceeding 200% of the federal poverty level.
  • Eligible children for the ABC program shall have at least one of the following characteristics: § Family with gross income not exceeding exceeding 200% of FPL  § Has a demonstrable developmental delay as identified through screening  § Parents without a high school diploma or GED  § Eligible for services under IDEA  § Low birth weight (below 5 pounds, 9 ounces)  § Income eligible for Title I programs  § Parent is under 18 years of age at child’s birth  § Limited English Proficiency  § Immediate family member has a history of substance abuse/addiction  § Parent has history of abuse of neglect Or is a victim of abuse or neglect
  • An age-eligible child who falls into one of the following categories shall be exempt from family income requirements: § Foster child § Child with an incarcerated parent § Child in the custody of/living with a family member other than mother or father § Child with immediate family member arrested for or convicted of drug-related offenses § Child with a parent activated for overseas military duty

Further enticement for struggling parents is that ABC funded programs provide free child care and pick-up/delivery services for children. What low income parent would not rush to place their child in such a program whether or not they want their child indoctrinated in fundamentalist Christian religion?

State employees at the Department of Human Services, which oversees this particular realm of education and tax dollars and in charge of the Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) program, could not account for how the money was spent by these schools, citing chaotic bookkeeping methods. The state did not require any particular accounting method. The state then or now does not know whether tax dollars granted to preschools and other educational programs serving ‘at risk’ children actually are used for that purpose, only requiring that grants be kept in a separate bank account.

Despite the wimpy crackdown in 2012, random yet infrequent inspections by state enforcement personnel lack the ability to determine whether prayers, hymn singing, and exorcising of demons might yet continue, stopping only the moment an inspector walks through the door.

In the aftermath of unwanted scrutiny by AU, the state allowed these powerful religious entities to fabricate an imaginary line between religious instruction and the so-called ‘ABC Day,’ a block of seven hours where secular education supposedly occurs without any religious indoctrination. While delineating these requirements in a new section of is program codes (see Section 23 at the DHS website), the restrictions on how tax dollars might be used fail to include rent, insurance, utilities, and other overhead expenses of the overall operation. Children bused to the school before the ABC day begins or who remain after are immersed in religious instruction, a convenient sleight of hand since parents’ work hours rarely coincide with ABC instruction hours.

As specifically stated in Section 23.04.4 of ABC Rules:

  • No religious activity may occur during any ABC day and no ABC funds may be used to support religious services, instruction or programming at any time.

Without a viability test by which religious preschools must prove their religious instruction could continue without tax dollars, there is no method to determine if ABC funds are used to support religion. Such a viability test would have to show that without tax dollar grants, these schools generate enough income from other sources to keep the rent paid and the lights on. The state has made no effort to devise such a test.

Now let’s take a sharp turn to a similar situation on the other side of the coin. As the newly installed majority Republican Congress rubs its hands in glee over its sudden ascension to total control over the nation’s lawmaking, no issue is more eagerly addressed than the longstanding thorn in the abortion debate—Planned Parenthood. Early calls for defunding this nonprofit organization cite exactly the same argument as those opposed to tax dollars for religious education.

Recently questioned by CNN’s reporter Jake Tapper, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan explained the need to stop tax dollars from supporting Planned Parenthood.

Well, there is a long-standing principle that we’ve all believed in. And—by the way, this is for pro-choice, pro-life people—that we don’t want to commit taxpayer funding for abortion. And, Planned Parenthood is the largest abortion provider.

So, we don’t want to effectively commit taxpayer money to an organization providing abortions. But, we want to make sure that people get their coverage. That’s why there’s no conflict by making sure that these dollars go to federal community health centers, which provide these services and have a vast larger network than these Planned Parenthood clinics, which—which are surrounded by a lot of controversy.

And, we don’t want to commit people’s taxpayer dollars to effectively funding something that they believe is morally unconscionable. Not everybody believes that and I understand that. But, that’s a long-standing principle that we’ve had in this country that we want to maintain.

Tapper countered Ryan’s remarks by citing the Hyde Amendment which ensures that federal funding isn’t paying for abortion, Tapper asked “of course, taxpayers don’t fund abortions, right now, right?”

“Right,” Ryan fumbled. “But, they get a lot of money and—and you know, money is fungible and it effectively floats these organizations which then use other money. You know, money is fungible.”

Ah. Money is fungible.

Of course it’s beyond Ryan’s comprehension that anyone would consider early childhood religious indoctrination to be “morally unconscionable.”

If Ryan and his cabal of rightwing religionists pursue their effort to kill Planned Parenthood (and thereby leave millions of women without reproductive health care), their argument goes against them in the wholesale religious perversion of our nation’s youth.

Religionists cite the helpless condition of a fetus and the ruthless medical procedures which may be used to terminate its life all while they discount the agonized decision-making women engage in before choosing such a path. Yet what is more helpless than a barely verbal child relinquished to a daily dose of brainwashing?

More to the point central to any federal legislation, what has longer and more consequential ramifications for the nation? While those terminated in the womb are removed from the overall population, the clear agenda for youthful brainwashing is to “Grow God’s Kingdom.”

Let’s not kid ourselves. The Religious Right will not stop until they have forced the United States of America to fit their definition of a Christian nation.

Compare the two programs: one provides financial assistance for medical care to women old enough to bear children and therefore old enough for reasoned decision-making. The other takes children not old enough to reason or speak for themselves and forces them to undergo religious indoctrination.

Imagine, if you will, religious tax-funded preschools which teach Islam.

~~~

Note: The red herring in Ryan’s argument centers on his theory that community clinics could provide adequate replacement services for those now available through Planned Parenthood. It would take significant expansion and investment for such clinics to equal the services offered by PP to over five million people per year.

Smoke This!

Marijuana medical choice dilemma health care concept as a person standing in front of two paths with one offering traditional medicine and the other option with cannabis.

When considering the pros and cons of medical cannabis, voters benefit from knowing as many facts as possible. Most people are not aware that the human body manufactures chemicals identical to those found in the cannabis plant. This stunning nugget of information was discovered as recently as 1990.

Wikipedia: “The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a group of endogenous cannabinoid receptors located in the mammalian brain and throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems, consisting of neuromodulatory lipids and their receptors. Known as ‘the body’s own cannabinoid system,’ the ECS is involved in a variety of physiological processes including…regulation of appetite, immune system functions and pain management…and are found in the brain and nervous system, as well as in peripheral organs and tissues.”[1]

Native to central Asian and the Indian subcontinent, the cannabis plant found in ancient literature and prehistoric burials served as medicine for seizures, pain, and other human ailments. Over time, three differing species have developed–sativaindica, and ruderalis— with the more psychoactive and medically useful plants diverging from a type containing less psychoactive agents—hemp–used for rope and textiles and farmed extensively through World War II.

At least 113 active cannabinoids have been identified in the plant, one of which—tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—is the chemical cloned for medical use as the legal pharmaceutical drug Marinol. Many patients report better results from natural cannabis than with Marinol, perhaps due to the balancing effects of the plant’s other ingredients.

Another element of natural cannabis, cannabidiol (CBD), is highly effective in treating seizures and muscle spasms.[2] Families with children suffering seizures are pulling up stakes to move to states where their ailing child can access legal CBD oil. In natural proportions, all 113 active elements in cannabis balance each other in important ways that no synthetic isolated elements like Marinol could ever do.

Those advocating for more research and FDA approval before allowing medical use fail to acknowledge the fact that cannabis has been in the human pharmacopoeia for at least 5000 years. Compared to that, FDA approval means nothing. But aside from that, the fact is that drug companies are not going to invest the millions of dollars required to gain FDA approval of natural cannabis. They’d never recoup their investment on a plant that people can grow in their back yards. And they’ve started to understand that medical cannabis outshines many of their most profitable drugs both in effectiveness and in the absence of dangerous side effects. Drug companies are above all else profit-driven corporations.

It’s a little known fact that before the government will allow legal access to cannabis plant material for medical research, the researcher’s goal must be to find the harms that could be caused by the plant. If a researcher wants federal approval to research the potential medical benefits of natural cannabis, the request will be denied. These conditions are written into federal law.

Those in Arkansas voicing opposition to medical cannabis haven’t researched the issue with an open mind. They react based on old prejudices and discredited propaganda. There’s still the culture war specter haunting cannabis, that stinky weed that hippies used as part of their rebellion from the Establishment. It’s still a point of contention between parents and their teens in the ongoing generational battle over control.

Yet studies in states with legal medical cannabis have found reduced use of illegal drugs by teens and reduced rates of crime.  A multi-year study published by the journal Lancet Psychiatry found: “…When researchers looked at marijuana use over time in the 21 states where medical marijuana was legal by 2014, they found no change in marijuana use after a medical marijuana law was passed, compared with before. About 16 percent of teens said they had used marijuana in the past month before a law was passed, compared with 15 percent who said the same after a law was passed.”[3]

The fact is, the long anticipated ‘end of civilization as we know it if marijuana is legalized’ has simply failed to materialize.

A 2014 Texas study states: “Results did not indicate a crime exacerbating effect of MML on any of the Part I offenses. Alternatively, state MML may be correlated with a reduction in homicide and assault rates, net of other covariates. These findings run counter to arguments suggesting the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes poses a danger to public health in terms of exposure to violent crime and property crimes.”[4]

Researchers at the Norwegian School of Economics used FBI statistics “to investigate the effect of the legalization on two types of crime: theft and violence. In the study, they looked at the 18 states that had introduced such laws before 2012…The researchers found a clear decline in both theft and violent crime in the states that legalized marijuana and share a border with Mexico.”[5]

Arkansas’ governor and others who voice alarm about opioid addiction should think again about their opposition to medical cannabis. One notable result of medical cannabis laws is the reduction of prescription drug use. “Fewer people are using opioids in states that have legalized medical marijuana, according to a study published September 15 in the American Journal of Public Health that bolsters advocates’ claims that marijuana can substitute for more deadly drugs.”[6]

An extensive study by the RAND Corporation (2015) concluded that legal medical cannabis reduces opioid use: “The fact that opioid harms decline in response to medical marijuana dispensaries raises some interesting questions as to whether marijuana liberalization may be beneficial for public health. Marijuana is a far less addictive substance than opioids and the potential for overdosing is nearly zero.”[7]

On November 8, citizens of Arkansas have an opportunity to cast a vote for compassion and common sense in the Natural State by bringing back the right to use this natural medicine. In the process, they also have the opportunity to nudge this state a baby step closer to the vision and advantages enjoyed by citizens in 25 other states of this nation.

 

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Endocannabinoid_system

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cannabidiol

[3] Quoted from http://www.ctvnews.ca/ctv-news-channel/medical-marijuana-laws-don-t-lead-to-increased-use-by-teens-large-u-s-study-1.2424012 ; Lancet study is at http://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lanpsy/PIIS2215-0366(15)00217-5.pdf

[4] http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0092816

[5] http://sciencenordic.com/legalization-medical-marijuana-reduces-crime

[6] http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-09-15/study-opioid-use-decreases-in-states-that-legalize-medical-marijuana

[7] https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/working_papers/WR1100/WR1130/RAND_WR1130.pdf

 

An Ozark Interlude

snake

Yesterday, the pesky doe had circled the fenced yard all day, causing the dogs to bark incessantly. Nerves shot, at around 5 p.m. I decided to fire off a few rounds to scare her away. I grabbed my .22 rifle and stood on the porch at the west end of the house, which is my daughter’s apartment, and looked for the doe. From there a person can look downhill toward the ponds and pasture, normal doe hangout. Nowhere to be seen.

I returned to my dinner preparations, fed the dogs, fed the cats, and fed the goldfish. One cat of the four—Esmeralda—didn’t show up. I thought, okay, she followed me to the apartment. So I went back there and looked for her, called, nothing. Usually she is front and center demanding food at that point, so this was highly unusual.

Then the barking started again. I grabbed the .22 and went to the gate. There stood that stubborn doe not a hundred feet from the house.

Now let me say that this has been an ongoing war for multiple deer generations. Before we got these two hounds, the deer jumped over our yard fence and helped themselves to whatever they pleased—hosta, flower beds right by the porch, any tomatoes or other veggies I tried to grow in the raised beds. But for the last five years with hounds running free in the yard, the deer have decided discretion is the better part of valor, hosta notwithstanding.

But this doe has become quite clever at avoiding the hounds by jumping the fence in the wee hours of morning when the hounds are sacked out in the house. Consequently my tomato plants have been topped multiple times and the peppers probably won’t come back. This is after a second planting. So I really don’t care that it’s not deer season or that my .22 bullet wouldn’t be a clean kill.

In the winter, I would have opened the gate and let the hounds chase her off. But it’s tick season. Worse, the last time we let both hounds go at the same time, the younger one—Weezie—didn’t come back until well after dark. She was shaking and terrified and smelled of tobacco smoke. Someone had penned her up. So now when we let Weezie out, it’s without her big sister Cu. She usually bounds around chasing squirrels in the adjacent woodland, living dog ecstasy for ten or fifteen minutes before she’s ready to come back in the yard. Cu, on the other hand, will stay out much longer, baying as she tracks scent clear back to the canyon.

So I’m standing at the gate with my rifle and the dogs are going nuts. The deer is being coy, facing me with several large trees between us. I can’t get a clear shot. Plus I’m having pangs of conscience. The .22 can’t deliver a kill shot. She might have a fawn around here. I’m thinking, well, if I let Weezie out, she’ll put a good scare in that bitch and I won’t have to shoot her.

I’m juggling the rifle and Annoying Emma the mongrel terrier is underfoot. The minute my hand touches the gate latch, Emma lunges, Weezie lunges, I nearly drop the rifle, and all three dogs are out the gate. Damn it.

dogs

Look, that deer is right out there. Can we go out, please please?

Okay, calling them is worthless. In two seconds, two brown streaks are hurtling through the underbrush down by the pond. The doe bounds east and then south toward the canyon, dogs in fast pursuit. I go inside, put the rifle away, and eat my cold dinner.

This is worse than it sounds because Cu is my daughter’s dog. She’s housesitting this week and swamped with coursework for the two graduate level summer school classes she’s taking. Plus she’s seriously attached to Weezie. If she knew the dogs were out there dashing through the late afternoon heat harvesting ticks by the bucket and bound not to return for hours, she would be worried sick. So I decide not to tell her. Dinner goes down hard.

Then I remember I have a missing cat! Why? I could understand if she was preoccupied with her last stealth moves on a mouse or mole, but it’s been an hour. Something is wrong. I go back outside and stand by the gate. Emma goes out too, because she’s way too smart (and too old and too fat) to try to run with the hounds. As she exits the gate, which I’ve left open for the hounds’ return, she briefly sniffs the bed of ivy growing along the fence. She immediately jumps back.

ivyWhat fresh hell is this? I lean forward toward the ivy before I hear the unmistakable rattle. I can see nothing—the ivy is a green mass about five feet wide and ten feet long and at least a foot deep. But the sound is familiar.

Snake.

I go back and grab the .22. I’m holding the gun listening. Can’t see a thing. Rattling continues. I shoo Emma back because of course if I told her to, she’d jump into the ivy.

I aim and fire at the sound. The first round cracks out of the gun and the rattle continues. I give it my Shaolin concentration and fire again. The rattle stops and the ivy starts to move. I fire a couple more rounds.

I set down the gun and grab the hoe from the other side of the porch. I start hacking at the ivy, trying to pull that tenacious vine apart so I can see what I’m up against. I don’t want a coiled snake to suddenly strike, so I’m working incrementally from the edge inward. Finally I see a flash of color, that familiar brown-rust pattern of a copperhead. It’s coiling and turning as I expose part of it to view.

I’ve learned that lots of snakes rattle their tails. Once I thought about it, I remembered that rattlesnake rattles are higher pitched, a hissing sound like air escaping a tire. This rattle was lower pitched, a tail hitting leaves. Either way, I’m always thankful for the rattle.

Hack, hack, I drive the hoe down on its body. As it moves toward me, I realize I’m only hacking at the last six inches. I chop more vine. Finally, there’s the wedge-shaped head. I slam the hoe down but it has moved. Toward me.

I’m sweating and cursing and keep telling Emma to get back damn it. I rip more vines and finally I can see the whole snake. I’ve done a fairly decent job of smashing a place six inches from its tail, and now I can see a bullet hole I managed to send straight through its middle. From that point to its head, it seems unable to fully move. Maybe the shot injured its spine.

That doesn’t mean it can’t bite and send its load of venom into my ankle. Or Emma’s face. So I land the hoe behind its head. The ground under all that ivy is super soft. I’m just burying the snake in dirt.

I hook the hoe under the snake’s midsection and lift it out of the ivy. Once I’ve tossed it onto the driveway, a swift blow behind its head finishes it off. Of course it’s still moving and Emma still wants in the middle of it, so I leave the hoe blade sitting on its neck and step back.

I’m thinking this explains the missing cat. This area here between the gate and my car is a place she frequents. If she spotted the snake, she might do what lots of cats do, which is chase the snake. I once had a cat that specialized in chasing snakes. She’d herd them right out of the yard and away from the house. That’s when the kids were little and I always thought she knew exactly what she was doing, protecting our babies.

Of course, I also once had a cat that got bit. Twice. Old Reece’s Pieces was a slow learner or had a contract with death, I never could figure out which. I’ve written about him before. Once he burst through the pet door and ran down the back hallway. I found him my daughter’s closet, cowering in the corner. His right eye was swollen shut and the area around it bloody and turning purple. Trip to vet. Fangs hit his forehead and eyelid, barely missing the eyeball. Vet thought he’d lose the eye but he didn’t.

A year or so later, Reece’s didn’t show up for dinner, just like Esmeralda hadn’t shown up. I remembered what happened then, how I searched around the house for two days before I found him lying in tall weeds. I talked to him, wondering why he didn’t get up and come to me. He was less than twenty feet from the house. How I missed him before I’ll never know.

But he didn’t get up, just meowed weakly. So I picked him up and the hand I put under his belly came back bloody. He’d been snake bit in the stomach. In the two days he’d been laid up, the bite wound had spread about six inches in diameter, the hair had fallen off, and the skin was black and rotten. He was too weak to move.

The vet shook his head, shot him full of antibiotics, and sent him home to die. I kept him in my bedroom where he crawled under my bed. He wouldn’t eat. The next day, I sat nearby eating cantaloupe and he sniffed the air. I gave him some. He couldn’t eat enough.

Who knew? For the next several days, Reece’s Pieces ate mashed cantaloupe. Then he started eating regular food. Slowly he got well.

Is this what happened to Esmeralda? Was she lying in the grass somewhere or in the woods, paralyzed by copperhead poison?

I began searching, again touring the house, under the beds, my daughter’s apartment. Then outside—the flower beds, under the porch, under my car. The weeds. The underbrush, hoe in hand, because one snake is never the whole story.

Meanwhile, every fifteen minutes or so, I’m calling the dogs. I can hear them way down in the woods. Then even further, like they were down in the canyon now. Paying absolutely no attention to my calls, my demands that they get in the yard right now. They’re tracking, hollering as they go.

Which is, of course, what hounds do.

What about snakes?! They could easily stumble across a big rattler—years back, a neighbor shot a timber rattler that was nine feet long. I killed a velvet tail coiled up right by my car door after I thought I was getting a flat. I shot two bigger ones about six feet long and traveling across my yard. I regret killing them. They were beautiful and if the stupid little Pekinese I had at the time had left them alone, I wouldn’t have needed to shoot them.

If those hounds got snake bit out there in that rugged country, I’d never find them. I’d have to wait for the buzzards to start circling. Oh, damn, this is not going well.

I don’t find the cat. Anywhere.

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Taco instructing Finnegan on cat rules.

I’ve never regretted killing a copperhead. I leave this one lying on the drive. Our old patriarch cat, Taco, comes by to sniff. Our two younger cats investigate, appropriately wary of the smell. There is a strong scent to poisonous snakes and cats have good instincts. Except the young male Finnegan, appropriately bold for a young king. He wants to pop it a couple of times. The snake is still writhing like they do after death. That thrills him. He stalks around it, hair standing up on his spine.

I try to watch television, springing up at every commercial to look again for Esmeralda. I imagine she’s dead or dying somewhere. I may never find her.

I call the dogs. It’s 7:30 p.m. I can’t hear them at all.

Light is fading. It’s 8:30. No dogs. No Esmeralda. I’m calling, calling. Go to the far end on my daughter’s porch and call some more.

Minutes tick by. I listen to the bullfrogs warming up at the pond. I hear lapping noises at the water bowl. I think it’s Emma. But it sounds like a big dog…

Yes! I step back inside her living room and there is Weezie lapping water like she’s dying of thirst and Cu spread out of the floor like she can’t move one more step. Both dogs panting as fast as they can.

I hurry through the house to close the yard gate before they decide to venture out again. They have no such intention. They’ve been running for three hours in this miserable heat. They follow me to the kitchen where they stretch out on the cool floor. Panting. Lots of panting.

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Esmeralda temporarily captive.

As I step back into the kitchen from closing the gate, there’s Esmeralda. What? Where did she come from? She’s all relaxed, doing her ballet stretches as I scold her. Then she’s all about her dinner.

The only thing I can figure out is that she was having a nap in the apartment and just wasn’t ready to respond when I was back there searching. Or whatever. She’s one of those Cats.

As for the dogs, they are too exhausted to move. Forty-five minutes elapsed before they stopped panting. Covered in ticks. Fortunately, their meds kills the ticks once they bite, so it wasn’t like they were going to be sucked dry. Still, I couldn’t stand it. I got about a dozen off each ear and that was all they’d let me look for. I’m so glad it’s not late July. That’s when the super tiny ticks start, the ones you can’t see that spread like dust by the thousands.

Today has been a vast improvement. The snake is in an old dishpan. It’s about two and a half feet long. Esmeralda is pursuing enigma. The dogs are napping. Once it cools off a little, I’ll walk down the driveway and toss the snake into the woods.

 

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Summer Vacation

ink bottle

It was 1972. A wedding in Long Beach requested our presence, a friend in our tight-knit group to join with his true love in holy matrimony. So we embarked on a road trip to the West Coast, that fabled land of golden sunsets and salty air. A 1930s wedding theme had been announced, so for weeks prior to the trip, I had worked feverishly to sew a gangsta-style three-piece suit in pink gabardine for my husband Frank and a long-waisted light yellow dotted Swiss dress for me. Our friend Virginia, who provided her bright yellow VW bug convertible for the journey, got busy sewing her own pink vintage-style dress for the occasion.

We had plenty of fun planning the trip, gathering wide brimmed hats, Frank’s fedora, the gloves, the hand-held fans. Freshly inspired by Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing book, we gathered the requisite pharmacy, tame in comparison to his. The itinerary grew with each passing day. On the way out there, we’d see the sights traveling in tandem with Jeff, Robert, and Franz in Robert’s shiny blue Karmann Ghia convertible.

The day arrived. We loaded up at Jeff’s house and then headed west, tops down and hair flying in the wind. In those days, Interstate 40 had not been completed. Especially in Oklahoma we found ourselves detoured through small dusty towns on the well-worn two lanes of old Route 66.

Long before Oklahoma City, we put up the ragtop to stop the torrent of wind tearing around us. Somewhere before that, my beautiful paisley turquoise silk headscarf disappeared into the landscape. Late that night, past Tucumcari and facing into a storm front that lit up the sky with magnificent lightning, the front hood flew open and the garment bag with our wedding clothes blew out. Frank steered to the shoulder, latched the hood, and backed up until we found the bag lying unharmed in the median.

More hours passed. We made the last curve around a dark mountain and Albuquerque spread out below like a bowl of lights. The garment bag fiasco separated us from the other car but we couldn’t go another mile. A cheap motel room felt like the Hilton.

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l-r: Frank, Robert with Franz hidden behind him, Jeff tempting death.

The next morning, a quick drive through the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest renewed our wonder in the natural world. We made our rendezvous with the other car late the second night at the Grand Canyon. I spent a miserable night freezing in a too-short sleeping bag on rocky ground, probably no worse off than the rest of us. The next morning some of us dropped acid for a walkabout along the south rim. The Grand Canyon is mind-blowing on its own. With LSD, it became a second-by-second discovery of bizarre vegetation, rocks of every epoch, and the mystery of distance, time, and existence. Then we were on our way again.

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Me and Virginia at the Calico ghost town in the Mojave Desert

The wedding was complicated—people we didn’t know, extended family, a church and reception. Before and after, we wandered through L.A.’s farmers market, Hollywood, Venice Beach and other places along the seafront. With the happy couple off on their honeymoon and the Karmann Ghia headed home, we set off to the north. From Santa Barbara we followed Highway 1, that hair-raising winding roadway that clings to the cliffs along Big Sur. I don’t do well with heights. My knees start shaking at the third rung of a ladder. I alternated between sickening glances down at the waves smashing onto rocks and hiding my face in my hands.

frank at big sur

Frank and Virginia along Highway 1 at Big Sur. Arrow points to two people in the edge of the waves. Perspective.

Exhausted, we gave up just south of Monterey and parked at the side of the road for the night. Thanks to Frank’s heroic decision to sleep outside, Virginia took the front and I had the back. Neither of us could lie down since there was the matter of bucket seats and gearshift in the front and an ice chest and assorted miscellany in the back. As it turned out, we both had it better than Frank who woke us in the frigid pre-dawn fog desperate to get warm.

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Frank at the Golden Gate

Disheveled and bone tired, we toured San Francisco, a drive-by effort to see the Presidio, Golden Gate bridge, and Fisherman’s Wharf. We walked through downtown, gawking up at tall buildings, dodging cable cars, and musing over oddities like the man playing bagpipes across the street from Woolworths. We wandered around the fabulous Palace of Fine Arts, a preserved portion of the original 1915 exhibit for the Panama-Pacific Exposition.

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Palace of Fine Arts

bagpipes

At this point we had sixty-five dollars to get us back to Northwest Arkansas. There would be no more cheap motels or souvenirs and precious little food. Even with gas at 35 cents per gallon, we hardly had enough to get us home. Fortunately, Virginia had a Gulf credit card. We drove all night, white lines blurring down the pavement as we crossed the gray-white moonscape of Nevada. We hit Salt Lake City sometime the next morning and found a truck stop with showers and a buffet, all of which we could charge on her card.

After a brief gander at Mormon temples, we stuffed ourselves back into the increasingly crowded VW and dove into the Rockies. Up and down we drove, steep inclines, terrifying drop-offs, and legitimate worries about the VW’s clutch and brakes. Frank’s old friend John and his wife lived on the other side of all those snow-capped peaks at a little mining town called Leadville. He welcomed us with cocktails, grilled steaks, and a loft sleeping area in his mountainside chalet.

Oh the joy.

The next day, John took us sightseeing. Included in his agenda was an abandoned silver mine he’d discovered. What is commonly known as a road disappeared before we left the valley floor and soon we found ourselves clinging to the mountainside on a trail of sliding scree hardly wide enough for the Bronco’s wheel base. John was famous for his wild and crazy antics as a Kappa Sig in college, and he’d forged into Vietnam with the bravado only a lieutenant on point can respect. His patrol had walked into a land mine which nearly cost him his life, so when we neared the silver mine and the vehicle canted to a forty-five degree angle and he said ‘oh shit,’ it was truly an ‘oh shit’ moment.

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After an hour of digging, Frank pushes uphill while John tries to pull out. Virginia watches.

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How far down is that?

We gingerly crawled out of the vehicle on the high side and while Virginia and I watched, John and Frank began digging out from under the wheels in an attempt to level the vehicle. We lost track of time out there in the thin air. The view was breathtaking. Unfortunately, my breath had already been taken by the vertical drop-off to the distant valley below where towering evergreens looked like matchsticks. I was sure we were all going to die.

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Success!

Over an hour later, John deemed the vehicle level enough that he dared climb inside to drive back up to level ground. With his success, I reluctantly re-entered the vehicle for the remaining terrifying jaunt to the mine. Scavengers had been here many times, but we wandered around thinking of the old timers who came up here with a mule and a pick to seek their fortunes.

mine shackGlittering chunks of ore scattered over the rocky ground. The old log structure wasn’t safe to walk in, but we nosed around in the scattered remains where I found a little Carter’s Ink bottle buried bottom up in the dirt. It had turned blue-green in the decades since its contents had been used to pen letters home or tally the proceeds of a day’s hard work. I tucked it in my pocket and braced for the slip-slide trek back down.

From Leadville we hurried south to hit our planned stops at Garden of the Gods and Royal Gorge before turning east for the last leg of the journey. If you’ve never crossed Kansas, be warned—it’s the original never-ending story. You drive and drive and you’re still in the same place. We had cleverly planned what seemed the shortest route but which turned out to be a maze of two lane roads to nowhere. It got dark, the gas gauge sat on empty, and we were in the middle of corn fields with lightning forking across the sky.

Somehow we found our way to a tiny town and waited until the local gas station opened. Later that afternoon, crammed into the back seat with relics of our journey towering in the seat beside me, claustrophobia got me by the throat and I had to get out of the car. We stopped while I walked in the gravel along the side of the road and said I could not get back in that car. Finally Frank convinced me to try the front seat and he squeezed into the back for the rest of the way home.

So many memories, so many emotions. Frank is no longer among the living, nor is Robert. The rest of us keep growing older. But when I think about that summer vacation, I’m lost in the past, my hair flying in the wind, our laughter ringing up the hillsides. I hold that ink bottle in my hand and I’m back in the hot sun smelling pine in cool air and breaking my fingernails as I dig it out of that hard packed ground.

We did things, went places, had adventures. We experienced profound wonder that never left us. We grew. I see now—that’s what vacations are for.

A Year Later — Justin Harris

harris

Last year I blogged about a “State of Perversion” in Arkansas. The news broke with a sensational expose by the Arkansas Times on our local state representative Justin Harris. Now a year from his outing, this seems an appropriate time to check on how far we’ve come. (Or haven’t.)

Here, in part, is what I wrote:

“Justin Harris is serving his third term in the Arkansas Legislature where he has introduced conservative measures ranging from abortion restriction to denying funding to the state’s department of human services under the campaign promise to reduce government spending. He and his wife own and operate a preschool in his legislative district town of West Fork, a largely rural constituency with a high percentage of fundamentalist church followers. Alongside the alphabet and fingerpainting, Mr. Harris’ school teaches religion.

  • UPDATE: Since the scandal broke, Mr. Harris announced he would not run for another term. However, he refused to resign, meaning he continues to serve at the state capitol until January 2017. Even more disgusting has been the utter and abject failure of any Republican legislator to criticize Mr. Harris.

“In 2012, Harris found himself on the hot seat after a formal complaint was filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Seems Mr. No Government Funding had his hand in the public till by obtaining grant funding for his preschool. Over a million dollars had flowed into his coffers, courtesy of a state agency charged with providing tax monies in support of preschools that addressed the needs of ‘underserved’ youth…

“Mr. Harris mounted a vigorous and outraged defense of his right to all that money. He brought in a team of attorneys from Arizona who specialized in defending schools who want to teach Jesus on the public dime. Subsequently, the ABC program promulgated a set of rules specifically addressing the issue of religious instruction. It is unknown whether the ‘solution’ was put forth by the Arizona attorneys, modeled on rules operating in other states, or sprang from a singular Arkansas process, but the novel approach defines an ‘ABC day’ as a set number of hours of purely secular instruction. Whether religious instruction occurs before the ABC day commences or after it ends would not be the state’s concern.

“Since then, Mr. Harris has expanded his operation and state funding approaches a million dollars annually. His students arrive as early as 7:30 a.m. and leave as late as 6 p.m. The ABC day begins at 9 and lasts until 3. Before and after, it’s all about Jesus.

  • UPDATE: An exchange of information with Americans United for Separation of Church and State reveals that under current federal guidelines, states can use tax dollars in this way. Apparently there’s no compelling interest in establishing a viability test where a school would have to prove that its religious instruction could exist separately without the use of tax dollars. In the case of the Harris school, if tax dollars didn’t support the rent, utilities, and salaries for operations, the school would cease to exist. Repeated questioning of DHS money managers produced zero interest in developing or implementing such a test.
  • Likewise, we can hardly expect much interest for reform among current members of Congress who quake in fear of the Religious Right. Closing a loophole that recruits so many young minds to their way of thinking is simply not to be considered even if that loophole stands in clear violation of the U. S. Constitution.

“Soon after the flap over school funding, the Harrises…decided to adopt little three girls whose dysfunctional family had lost custody. The girls were fairly well adjusted in a foster home, but the natural mother allegedly made a personal plea to Justin Harris. This arguably admirable effort left many to question Harris’ quick use of the girls in a family portrait promoting his re-election campaign (a violation of adoption policy), the nearly $30,000 tax break that came with the adoption, and the monthly stipend allotted to Harris in the form of state support. Clearly, the adoption wasn’t all about benevolence.

“Firmly fixated on the adoption idea, the Harrises refused to listen to DHS field agents who reported that the girls would not be suitable in the Harris household. With all the arrogance befitting a person who believed God directed his acts, Harris apparently used his elected office to pressure DHS to approve the adoption. Local caseworkers opposed to the adoption mysteriously changed their recommendation after their boss advocated on the Harris’ behalf. That Justin Harris held a powerful position in the legislative committee which controlled DHS funding seems never to have been examined as a possible contributor to this department head’s advocacy, which resulted in a local juvenile court judge granting the adoption. Unfortunately, because the case involves adoption, DHS has not released any information.”

  • UPDATE: Unfortunately, nothing is known to have changed regarding inappropriate legislator influence over DHS activities. But the incident does reveal the ugly underbelly of an organized evangelical movement to adopt children. The objective is two-fold: provide a viable argument against abortion rights for women and brainwash vulnerable youngsters to extremist religious views.

“Within a year, the Harrises decided to ‘rehome’ the girls to another family. By early 2014, one of the girls had been raped by her new ‘father,’ Eric Cameron Francis. Later that year, Francis would be convicted of multiple counts of child abuse and is currently serving time. As it turns out, Francis had been an employee at the Harris preschool and his wife was good friends with Mrs. Harris. Not surprisingly, Harris chose to stay quiet about his role in placing the victim in the Francis home until a reporter from the Arkansas Times connected the dots. The story went public in March 2015.

“When the adoption/rehoming scandal broke, Harris held a press conference as reported by the Arkansas Times. He presented himself and his family as the damaged party.

“…He said one of the girls — the implication was the middle sister — had to be medicated to stop hurting her sister, and that he was advised by therapists to treat her RAD [Reactive Attachment Disorder] by removing toys and other belongings from her room.

  • UPDATE: Harris never publicly accepted responsibility for the harm inflicted on these girls. While his initial reaction seemed to portray him and his wife as the aggrieved parties, his last public statement on the issue included a comment to the effect that he felt sad about what happened to the girls…as if he personally had nothing to do with it.
  • ABC News produced a close-up on the Harris adoption scandal. The report failed to address the ignored caseworker input and accepted at face value the excuse of Reactive Attachment Disorder. In response, a statement from a collective of mental health professionals criticized the ABC report and refuted RAD as a legitimate diagnosis.
  • On a more promising note, however, the girls are reportedly well adjusted in their new post-Harris adoptive home. And newly-elected Governor Asa Hutchinson saw fit to accept the resignation of the head of DHS and has hired a new person to fill this slot. He has also instigated a complete revamping of the department.

“Harris said he sought DHS assistance at that time but was given none. He said he thought he’d found the ‘perfect solution’ in handing the girls over to…Eric Cameron Francis. Eric Francis is serving 40 years in prison on charges of raping the child.”

  • UPDATE: Justin Harris has continued to hire questionable employees to care for the vulnerable young children attending his preschool. A school bus driver failed to notice that a child remained on the bus. The child was not discovered until early afternoon. Fortunately, the temperature remained fairly mild that day and the van was parked in the shade. The child suffered no ill effects. Nevertheless, the driver was prosecuted. The Harrises fired the driver immediately upon discovery of the incident and accepted no responsibility even though the school failed to abide by its own protocols in checking attendance which would have discovered the missing child.
  • Additionally, word has leaked out that another male employee was fired in December 2015 for inappropriate contact with the students. Seems the Harrises might need to employ better screening methods for prospective employees other than learning whether the candidate regularly attends church.

“Within a month of the revelation that Arkansas DHS had no rule or restriction on the rehoming of adopted children, the state legislature passed a law making rehoming a felony. Harris voted for the bill, in essence making himself a retroactive felon. He resigned from the chairmanship of the public health committee, but failed to yield his legislative seat. He has also refused to accept any responsibility for the little girl’s sexual abuse. At the peak of this fiasco, his school billboard proclaimed that ‘God Himself will fight for you. Just stay calm.’”

  • UPDATE: Happily for all of us in South Washington County who must drive past the Harris pre-school on a daily basis, the school’s outside billboard has remained empty of Godly exhortations since the beginning of the 2015-16 school year, with the exception of a brief period during Christmas.

“Throughout the intense scrutiny on Harris and his failure as an adoptive parent, a considerable body of information has come to light about ongoing religious activities at his preschool. Although random spot inspections by the state theoretically rule out the chance of illegal religious activity during the ‘ABC day,’ reports from former teachers and others allege that children who misbehave are routinely taken to the office where they are prayed over to ‘cast out demons…’

  • UPDATE: There’s been no official (or unofficial) statement from any elected leader or state agency on the use of prayer to cast demons out of misbehaving youngsters. Why would it be so difficult to issue a blanket policy statement about the negative impact on young minds of promoting the belief that demons might inhabit a person or that such demons, rather than oneself, is the party responsible for misbehavior?

“…While firmly denying funding to DHS based on his campaign promise to reduce government spending, Mr. Harris (as legislator) fought for government handouts to fund his religious school in spite of the fact that he knew he was breaking the law by teaching religion in a tax-supported program. As an elected person who held himself up as an example of Christian righteousness, he should have been the first person to recognize he was crossing the line between church and state as delineated in the U. S. Constitution. Instead, assuming he understood the thrust of the Founding Fathers’ intent, he no doubt privately justified his behavior with his belief that God willed it…

“This kind of simplistic medieval thinking lies behind the ability of political handlers to capture votes from the evangelical demographic. The compelling argument is that demons rule the ‘other’ party, that gay marriage, abortion, and other private activities are the proper province of political action, and only by voting for Mr. Righteous can we satisfy the will of God.

“There are many features of modern life that scare the hell out of those who simply cannot understand science or other changes increasingly widespread in the world. Our technology and culture have evolved faster than our mental or physical state. Everything is too fast and too complicated. It’s only been a hundred years since picking peas and saddling a horse served as the requisite skill set to get through life.

  • UPDATE: Which brings us to the candidacy of Donald Trump. Although no one would claim that Trump is a model of evangelical righteousness, he embodies another characteristic evidently more important to the religious right: the ability to dominate. Of almost equal importance is Trump’s wealth, which evangelicals view as God’s gift to a righteous man.
  • Just as the religious right’s concept of a Supreme Being embodies power and arrogance, so does Trump. By reflecting back the anger, fear, and blind hatred toward those unlike themselves, Trump approaches the brink of gaining the Republican nomination for president. The collusion of willful ignorance and the result of years of religious education (versus education based on logic and fact) now stands before us.

One final encouraging note: Justin and Marsha Harris’ West Fork home is up for sale. It may be asking too much, but one can hope that at least this one preschool operation will be taken over by an educator, not another evangelist, and that the children there will learn rational thought along with their ABCs.

Finally, we’re pleased to note that Mr. Harris earned the top ‘dick’ award for 2015.

Coming soon…an update on the Duggar family’s equally outrageous 2015.